Donna Palmer, August 11th, 2015

Title

Donna Palmer, August 11th, 2015

Description

In this interview Donna Palmer discusses her experiences living in Detroit over the past sixty years. From her childhood in Corktown to her apartment on Clairmount, Donna discusses her ups and downs in the city. Living only blocks away from Twelfth and Clairmount during the unrest in July 1967, she lends insight into the anxiety and fear that gripped the city.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

11/18/2015

Rights

Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI

Format

audio/MP3

Language

en-US

Type

Sound

Video

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Donna Palmer

Brief Biography

Donna Palmer was born November 5, 1942 in Pittsburg Pennsylvania she moved to Detroit at the age of nine. Growing up she lived in the south of the city near Michigan Central Station and attended the schools in that area such as Jefferson Junior High along with some well-known Motown artists. When she was married she moved into the inner-city where she and her husband were caretakers for their apartment building where she and her family lived during the summer of 1967.

Interviewer's Name

Noah Levinson

Interview Place

Detroit Historical Museum

Date

8/11/15

Interview Length

50:28

Transcriptionist

Melissa King

Transcription Date

11/17/2015

Transcription

NL: Today is August the 11, 2015. This is the interview of Donna Palmer by Noah Levinson. We are in Detroit, Michigan at the Detroit Historical Museum and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Donna could you first tell me where and when you were born?

DP: I was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1942. November 5, 1942.

NL: And how long did you live in Pittsburg for?

DP: Until I was nine years old, then I moved to Detroit.

NL: Okay. First off, what part of Detroit did you move to?

DP: Actually it’s sort of south west around Myrtle, Temple, that area, Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth Street in that area close to the train station, the old train station off of Michigan Avenue. That’s where I spent a lot of my life there.

NL: How long did you live in that neighborhood for?

DP: Probably until I got married at twenty-one, so I was there at least till I was twenty-one, twenty-two years old.

NL: What do you remember about the train station when you first saw it and when you were first living in the neighborhood?

DP: Oh it was a beautiful place. It was a lovely place just to go and visit and to walk through it.

NL: Even without needing to go somewhere on the train?

DP: Right, they had lots of stores. Oh, it’s so sad the way it is now as compared to before. I think it should be preserved and saved.

NL: I’ve heard they actually just, I forget whoever owns it – has paid to put a thousand or so new windows on the building so hopefully that’s a first step in refurbishing it finally.

DP: The inside is beautiful the architecture is so beautiful it really should be preserved.

NL: Is there anything specific you remember about how it looks or how it looked?

DP: How it looked back then? It was huge inside big area; large area inside lots of sculptures inside of it was a lot of sculptures. My uncle traveled a lot so we were back and forth at the train station a lot either dropping him off or picking him up. We use to go down there just to go down there as kids and run around the station until they would run us out. On one side of Michigan Avenue was the black neighborhood and on the other side of Michigan Avenue was the Hispanic neighborhood so Michigan Avenue actually separated the blacks from the Hispanics back then.

NL: Was there any sort of tension or animosity?

DP: There was animosity and tension between the Hispanics and Blacks, so we knew to stay on our side of Michigan Avenue and they knew to stay on their side of Michigan Avenue.

NL: Did you ever have any first hand experiences related to that tension?

DP: Well growing up as a teenager, I had boyfriends that were in gangs that would fight. They would have what they call rumbles, and back then they fought with their fists, and they would have fights back and forth.  

NL: With other Hispanic gangs then?

DP: Yeah.

NL: Interesting.

DP: So you know it’s funny cause that is the way it is today, Hispanics are on one side of Michigan Avenue, and the rest of the people are on the other side of Michigan Avenue. So, we call it Mexicantown now; all of that area over there is Mexicantown.

NL: Right. So you could walk to the train station from your house?

DP: Mhmm. From my house. They use to have an eastern market over there. There was a – we have a eastern market now but they use to have a eastern market – I mean a western market just like the one on the east side here, we had the same thing one was on the west side and one was on the east side, eastern market.

NL: Was that open every day or on the weekends?

DP: On the weekends, mostly on the weekends.

NL: Okay, for farmers?

DP: Mhmm, for farmers to come in and bring their stuff. And there was lots of what they call meat markets down in through there, a lot of factories that sold a lot of whole sale stuff in through that area so it was [a] pretty industrial area right along there. The train came through there so there was a train – from the train station, trains would come through there and there were also trains that would deliver stuff goods in that area so there was train tracks. That was sort of like a mark for us too, not to go on the other side because we didn’t cross the tracks. When you crossed the tracks you were in the Mexican, Hispanic area and on this side was the black area.

NL: What do you remember about the part of your neighborhood that was right where you lived, the several blocks around where you lived?

DP: We had lots of churches, there were a lot of big churches there, I went to Jefferson Junior High school. Also, we weren’t too far from the projects so I sort of grew up with the people like the Motown people. So we went to school with the Temptations, the Supremes, one of my best friends sang with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. And we were there with Smokey and all the others in that area. Back then, we had—where they used to have talent shows and a lot of the talent shows would be held in the church, the one big church, I can’t remember the name of it but the one big church where they had the talent shows and we would have the non-famous people at that time such as the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. They weren’t really big hits back then and they would sing, David Ruffin and the Temptations, so there was a lot. We had a lot of night clubs, we had a couple of night clubs in that area not too far over on Woodward, the Greystone Ballroom, we had different – the 20 Grand, which were sort of like night clubs in that area. I wasn’t old enough at the time to get in but we use to sneak in, me and my girlfriend use to sneak in we would actually take her sister’s ID and show it to the man at the door and then we would put it behind our backs and slip it to the next person. And we got away with that for a long time until one day the guy said “Hey wait a minute how many of the same people am I seeing here?” So we would do that to get in to see those guys singing. And it was just like – it was really good. It was a good time in the city of Detroit, we had a good time. We didn’t have to worry about our doors, we could leave our doors open, everybody knew everybody in the neighborhood, so if anything happened everyone was involved in the neighborhood. So it was a good time. Old Tiger Stadium was still there, it was off of Trumbull there. One of the places I lived was right down from Tiger Stadium on Spruce Street so we would go to the Tiger Stadium, walk down there so all that was in the area,  Tiger Stadium, the Train Station, right around in that area.

NL: What do you remember about Downtown?

DP: You know we really didn’t go too much Downtown; oh Hudson’s was still there, I have a picture of Hudson’s building before they tore it down. Crowley's was Downtown. So, by us being sort of poor, we really didn’t get a chance to shop Downtown. The well off people, the well to do people shopped mostly Downtown. There was Kresge’s Dime Store, Five and Dime, there was Sanders. Sanders – they would have ice cream (what do you call sundaes), cream puffs so every once in a while when mom would get paid she had a little extra money she would take us downtown go to Sanders and get some ice cream or either we’d go to – one of the joys was to go to Hudson’s and ride the elevator up and down all the way to the top floor and then back down again or Crowley’s. So, they had another building down there, Kline’s they had down there, I think B. Siegel’s, those were some of the stores that were Downtown now all that is gone now. I remember they blew Hudson’s up and demolished it and I got pictures of it before they did that but yeah —

NL: What kind of work did your parents do?

DP: My mother she was a single mom, she did domestic work. So most of her work was in the suburbs, so she would have to ride the bus to places such as Oak Park and Southfield and that area where it was all white, there was not black. Especially Northwest Detroit, it was all Jewish area. So she would go out there and do domestic work and she was a nanny. She worked for two or three members of one family. So it was like she worked for the mother and she worked for the daughters and maybe the son, she would do certain days for them so she worked for like one family. They were really, they were nice to her. They would give her a lot of stuff and I remember her coming home with a lot of left over stuff from the refrigerator and it was like take this home to your kids and feed it to your kids and she would say, she would take it but she would say, “Why would I have to feed my kids leftover food from your refrigerator?” so she would bring it home anyway, they would give her cloths for me and stuff like that so they were very nice in that way they just felt like she needed the food from their refrigerator. [laughter]

NL: Did you have siblings growing up?

DP: I had a brother, one brother.

NL: Older or Younger?

DP: Younger, he was a couple years younger than I.

NL: Can you tell me about the schools that you went to in Detroit?

DP: We went to public school. It was pretty—the schools were pretty good back then; they cared about you learning. You might have some teachers that really believe in discipline. So we were disciplined. When we did something in school, we were disciplined for it.

NL: When you say that do you mean physical or do you mean —

DP: Paddles, sometimes we would get our hands paddled sometimes standing in the corner sometimes, in a coat closet, we would stand in there so. Of course I never really did anything to be disciplined.

NL: You were good?

DP: I was a goody. And I went to Jefferson Junior High School which is right across the freeway there, the Lodge Freeway, and that’s where most of everyone in that neighborhood went in junior high. The projects was there, so you would have to go through the projects to get to school. The school was pretty good, it was – mostly all black students went there. The projects was pretty rough, so it was a rough ordeal just to go through the projects to get to the school, you had to almost think about fighting for your life in order to make it to the other side because you might get beat up, jumped on and beat up for no reason at all, they might not like the way you look.

NL: Every day you had to worry about that?

DP: Um, not every day but when you see groups of kids together, they like to fight, fight, fight, so it was a lot of tension there a lot of ground standing, standing their ground the fact that you come from outside of the projects and you come through their area.

NL: You said you moved when you got married, where was that to?

DP: I moved in the area and I moved all over the area we were on Collingwood we lived on Blaine, Gladstone. All those areas we moved. What happened is that the man that owns — I don’t know if he still does but he use to own the St. Regis Hotel on the Boulevard — they considered him as a slum landlord back then. He owned a lot of apartment buildings in that area if you’re talking Dexter, Martin Luther King Boulevard, Rosa Park, all that area he owned apartment buildings and when I got married - well actually, I moved there before I got married - my mother moved us there so I was in my mother’s house just for a short period of time before I got married in fact I still lived there after I got married and then we soon moved out, got an apartment of our own. And so the landlord, the guy that owned the buildings, thought we were such a nice couple so he decided to make us caretakers of one of his buildings so our job was we got a free apartment and our job was to collect the rent and my husband was to do the general maintenance if it was anything like heavy maintenance, then they had people to come and do that so that is what we did.

NL: Which building was that and on what street?

DP: I can’t remember whether it was Seward or whether it was Blaine it was one of those building on Seward or Blaine.

NL: Was your husband working then too?

DP: Yeah, he was working at Chrysler, so he would do the maintenance work, he worked nights. In fact, he was working General Motors and Chrysler, because he was trying to make enough money to get us out of that neighborhood. So that was really — We had one kid then another one on the way so he was like “I really got to get us out of this neighborhood before the oldest one is old enough to go to school. I don’t want him to go to school in this area.”

NL: Gotcha.

DP: So I stayed at home and I would do the— ‘scuse me [turning off her ringing phone]. I would do the general maintenance like if someone moved out of the apartment building, I would go and clean it, the empty apartment and get it ready for another tenant to show. I would show the apartments in the day time and he would do the heavy work. Mostly all of his buildings, the heat was coal heat so he had coal furnaces there. So what happens is that someone has to fill up the coal bin, I don’t know if you remember the old coal furnaces where you feed the coal into the furnace, well someone would have to fill it up, and if you fill it up for one night, it will last the whole day. My husband would have to do that, and he would usually do that before he goes to work so that it’s done. But, if there is heavy maintenance they always had someone to come in and do the heavy stuff. I think the man’s name was Mr. Goodman. He owned a lot of the apartment buildings in that area but then years later I heard that he took the money from the slums buildings and built that St. Regis Hotel down on the Boulevard, Woodward and the Boulevard. So we stayed there until he got my sister-in-law and her husband (my husband’s brother and his wife) to manage one of the buildings, it was getting kind of dangerous, because she went to show an apartment and the guy raped her. So from that point on we were really ready to move out. So we moved out of that area, but we were over there during the riots.

NL: Backtracking just a little bit before we go on to that, how would you compare what you remember about – sort of comparing and contrasting – growing up in Pittsburg and then your first few years growing up in Detroit? Did you think of them as different cities or similar?

DP: Different cities because in Pittsburg, we grew up in an all Italian neighborhood. And you know there was none of this being aware — I would tell my cousins when they come up to visit just watch yourself.

NL: Here in Detroit.

DP: Here in Detroit, yeah. I mean, back then I mean things were getting kind of bad, and we had police forces – special police forces: we had the Big Four, we had technical units, we had gang squads, we had all kinds of police units that were out to curtail the gang and the fighting in the streets. So I told my cousins when they came, I said, “If you get stopped just throw your hands up, don’t resist”. Back then it was getting that way when I grew up in the old neighborhood off of Michigan Avenue over by the train station it wasn’t. When I started moving in closer to the area where the riots started it started getting worse I mean, you know, it was people breaking into your house and stuff like that. Over there it wasn’t as bad. And see I came up here when I was nine or ten years old. It was – I lived next door to a Philippine couple and everybody knew each other on the block, it was like family. But when we started moving outward more it was like – you would really have to start watching your back.

NL: Do you remember what building you were living in, in 1967 in the summer?

DP: I don’t remember the street, I know it was directly in back of Herman Kiefer Hospital.

NL: Kiefer Hospital you said?

DP: Herman Kiefer Hospital, there on the Lodge. I think they’re shutting it down, I came by there the other day it looks like they’re closing Herman Kiefer Hospital. It was very, very active back then, people used it a lot. It’s on the Lodge and Clairmount.

NL: How do you remember first hearing about or first noticing the violence and the unrest in the July 1967?

DP: Actually, you know some people might remember but I remember that special groups such as the Black Panthers and other militant groups came into that area about the year before trying to incite, have you heard that? 

NL: A little bit.

DP: Trying to incite riots, so we were actually really getting into black power, more power for the people and that is when you had student unrest and a lot of the universities around the nation, and rumors, you know you hear of rumors of war and things that are going to happen. I actually personally witnessed the Black Panthers coming into the city and coming into that area, different militant groups, and we were all asked to participate if anything happens. We were asked to participate and it was laid out like a plan: We’re going to come in and we are going to do this and we want you to do this and then back off.

NL: What was it that they wanted people to do?

DP: They wanted people—what they were gonna do was to actually break open the store, you go in and get everything you want out, and as soon as you get out everything you want, they were going to torch it and burn it down.   

NL: And this a year before, this is 1966 that they first came in?

DP: Yeah, it might not have been quite a year

NL: Okay, but sometime before that happened.

DP: Sometime before that happened. It was – you know they were having problems out in California in other cities, where they were having little riots, you know it was like they were just looking for something, it’s kind of strange that the way this started it happened to start just around the time they came in. Now, it was said to me – I mean, I’ve always heard that three or four o’clock in the morning before the riots the state police noticed heavy traffic on the highways coming in and these people coming in, they actually turned around and went back, and it holds some kind of truth because in areas where there is unrest you find outsiders to come in and incite it and get it going and then they leave after they’ve gotten it going. So that’s what I heard that had happened is they were coming in and going. I remember me and my husband and the kids listening to speeches from different radical groups. I don’t know exactly whether it was the Black Panthers but lots of radical groups would come in and stand on top of buildings and make a speech to the people about more power and black power and, "We gotta get rid of whitey" and all this kind of rhetoric and I remember that.

NL: What did you think about those speeches and demonstrations at that time you were hearing them?

DP: Actually they, because I was running an apartment building in that area, they actually asked to have a meeting in my building and of course I didn’t let them, but they were asking permission, could they hold meetings in the building, get with the people and talk to the people, kind of incite the people. All I cared about at that time was getting out of that neighborhood and getting my children to safety.

NL: What else do you remember about that last week in July? What were the sights and the sounds that you remember? 

DP: Oh it was terrible. We were actually, where that happened on the corner of Clairmount - I think it was Clairmount and Twelfth Street - it was supposed to have happened on top of a printing shop, there was a blind pig there. Of course I never frequented, but of course my husband and his brothers did so they knew it was there. It would run after hours and I think that’s where it happened. In fact, I had a girlfriend that was in there not too long before and they had raided it. But, the thing that I heard is that the police department was being paid money not to raid them. They knew it was – it was like they turned their head to the fact that it was there and let it run and I think that people were kind of upset because of the fact that they were raided. They shouldn’t have been operating anyway after hours, it was illegal to operate after hours and so it started there and that gave people reason to spill it out into the streets. So it happened in the wee hours in the morning, I was asleep. When I woke up all I could hear was disturbance in the street, Molotov cocktails being thrown in buildings because we were like, probably maybe two or three blocks off of twelfth, and we could hear them running through the neighborhood, people getting out and getting involved in it.

NL: Did your building stay safe throughout this?

DP: No, actually it didn’t get burned down, but we were never safe from police raids.

NL: Can you tell me more about that?

DP: Constantly they would raid the building. They were looking for snipers, they were looking on top of the roof for snipers, they were looking in people’s apartment for snipers. I remember they, after the riots started and got going really heavy, how they would they would not only knock on your door, one particular night we were all asleep, they’d take their gun and they would hit the door, and break it in. So they had me, my husband, and the two little ones standing up alongside the wall with our hands up like this [gestures] while they searched the apartment. They were looking for anything like stolen goods, rifles — I mean, people were breaking into the Light Guard Armory, they took machine guns, they took one of those big ones on tripods – they took one of those, because we know a guy that had one and he actually had it sitting up in his window and he was shooting down on the street from his window, his window faced the street, his bay window faced the street so he would just open the window and he would shoot down there at them.

NL: Was he, in effect, a sniper?

DP: Yeah he was a sniper. There were snipers on top of our building.

NL: Do you have any idea what they were looking for?

DP: What, the snipers?

NL: Yeah, for police or?

DP: Right across the street from my house was a grade school. After the Detroit Police couldn’t handle it anymore, and it really got out of control, we only had one person in the area that was like a representative that actually they thought had some influence over blacks and that was John Conyers. Conyers had a car dealer right there on the Boulevard. I think at Twelfth or Fourteenth Street, I think he had a car dealership there. So they sent John Conyers out to talk to the people. [Police talking] “To your people and see if you can get them to calm down.” They threw bricks and everything at him, they didn’t want to hear nothing he had to say. Right across the street from where we lived, the apartment building we lived in, was the grade school. Once the Detroit Police lost control and they could not handle the people, they asked "Please could you send in — what do you call these — National Guards?" So they sent in these National Guards from way up north. A bunch of white boys. You know how the blacks are going to feel about white boys coming in to calm down their area. That’s what they were shooting at, back and forth. The white boys had no ammunition; they were ordered not to shoot even if they did have them. They set up their camp right across in the school playground lot, right across from us. So, they had pitched their tents, tanks, everything over there, but they weren’t allowed to use them yet, so that went on and on and on and on for days. The looting, the burning, the skies in the daytime was black. You could not see anything, you could not go out of your house, you were afraid to go out. I went out to hang up some clothes or had the kids out in the yard, something like that, and the troops came though the yard and told me real quick to hurry up get my kids and take them back in the house. They were shooting off the roof and that’s what they were trying to find whoever it was on the roof, there was other people in the apartment building, because this was like a three story apartment building. There were other people in the apartment building that were on the roof that was shooting off the roof. One of the girls came to me knocked on the door and said she hadn’t seen her brother in about a couple days. She didn’t know where he was. She finally found him on Belle Isle. They had turned Belle Isle into a camp to hold them. They used all the garages, police garages. All the police stations, all the jails were filled up because they started arresting people one right after another. Sometimes you don’t even have to be doing anything, just walking down the street, they had a curfew so you couldn’t be out after a certain time, you had to be in. I got pictures of showing where you would stand in line to get food, because everything was burnt down you had nothing. You had no food, you had no milk, you had no diapers; there was nothing. We had to go across Eight Mile Street out Woodward to Eight Mile. All up and down Eight Mile Road were National Guard troops because Oakland County said, “We don’t want that and you are not gonna bring it across Eight Mile road.” So they were keeping you on this side. If they let you in on that side they escorted you in, you went to the store you bought what you had to get, and they escorted you right back out.

NL: Was that a fairly civil process going in with them and out the store?

DP: Uh, yeah.

NL: Nobody gave you a hard time about wanting to go shopping there?  

DP: No, but, the prices.

NL: Oh, they gouged?

DP: Oh god, did they gouge! [laughter] But you needed it.

NL: Right, that’s what it is, what are you going to do? [talking over each other]

DP: What are you gonna do? I know. You can imagine what a loaf of bread cost and a thing of milk for the babies.

NL: How were your kids through all this? How old were they at that time?

DP: They were three and four.

NL: Okay. So they might remember a little bit, but they were real small.

DP: They were too young, yeah, real small.

NL: Do you remember anything particular about them and how they responded to this? Could they tell that this was weird that something unusual was happening?

DP: They were traumatized, they couldn’t sleep at night. They ended up sleeping with us because they were afraid of the men with the black mask on. And see these guys you couldn’t see their face because they had, what do you call, helmets with the thing on.

NL: With the whole front face guard and everything?

DP: Yeah, it was all black.

NL: Riot gear.

DP: Riot gear. That’s what it was and when they finally gave them permission to start shooting, they started shooting at everything that moved. So you better not go out after a certain time at night, I forget what the curfew was, but my husband happened to be working nights, but he had to show his badge so that he can go across Twelfth Street that he had to go to work. Where there was a command post he had to show it.

NL: It was just his work papers from Chrysler that said, "I’m an employee here?"

DP: Yeah, so he had to do that to go to work and to come back home.

NL: And the plant never closed during the whole time? He worked every day?

DP: Some of the days he didn’t go in. He couldn’t get in but the plants were open.

NL: He couldn’t get in because they wouldn’t let him cross Twelfth Street?

DP: Right.

NL: Even though he had the work papers?

DP: Right, all depends on what command post he was going through.

NL: So it all depended by the day exactly what was happening then? Somebody from up top says, "Let people through," somebody from up top says, "Nobody."

DP: So sometimes he would have to turn around and come back because they wouldn’t let him through to go into work. I think like towards the end, he didn’t go in at all but at the beginning of it he was able to go in. When Detroit Police was handling it you were more freely to move around, but once the National Guards came in and took over you weren’t allowed to move as freely. People were writing on the side of their buildings "Black only", "Black owned" you know so that you could skip theirs and not burn theirs down. But it was organized, it was – they knew exactly what they wanted to do, they knew exactly where they wanted to hit.

NL: When you say “they” who do you mean?

DP: I don’t know which groups were involved, I don’t know exactly which ones were involved in this, but it was — I mean—

NL: The type of people who were preaching what you were saying before? Similar to the Black Panthers if not maybe necessarily that group.

DP: Right.

NL: Okay.

DP: Any group that got really militant. See I was actually more a Martin Luther King type person, I was not a Huey Newton and H. Rap Brown, and all of the—

NL: Peaceful nonviolent resistance.

DP: Nonviolent resistance type person. I was not the violent type you know, but I listened to some of their doctrine, some of the things they were saying, but they were saying it in a way — you know just like the other day I read where the Black Panther actually was responsible for WIC, the program that we have now to feed the women, the infants, and the children, but—no they did some good in the area. They could see some areas that needed — in the black area most especially. And I would drive around the city and to me, it really hasn’t changed. The buildings are still burned down and crumbling and the ones they did tear down, there’s empty lots. I mean, right over a block over from me a whole block burned. Fire department couldn’t get in to put the fires out because they were happening too fast, and then they would turn the fire department trucks over and beat them up and wouldn’t let them put out the fires. And it’s a good thing my building didn’t get torched, but a lot of buildings around me got torched and I stood in my doorway with the kids on my hip watching buildings after buildings burn around us.    

NL: You said even before all of this chaos from that week in July, it was a goal of yours to move out of that neighborhood to get somewhere else, when did you ultimately move out of the west side?

DP: Probably about a year after that. See that was in ’67 that riot. I think we were out of there and I got into my house in northwest — where I’m at now — probably about ’68 or ’69.

NL: And where is that?

DP: Over in the college district, U of D [University of Detroit] college district. I’m over in that area.

NL: Okay, what street?

DP: Prairie.

NL: So that is near Livernois.

DP: Near U of D.

NL: Okay, so Livernois and like Seven Mile, Six Mile?

DP: Yeah, Seven.

NL: Can you tell me about that neighborhood, your impressions right when you moved in there?

DP: When we moved in there it was all – let’s see – my block I was probably the third black family to move in. It was mostly all Jewish area but then soon after that they started moving out. So they started going out more to Oak Park instead of in that area. So we moved in over there, the schools were so much better, and the whole area was so much better, and it was a relief to get away from over there.

NL: Is that the Mumford area?

DP: Yeah.

NL: That is where your kids went to school?

DP: No, my kids went to Cass Tech. All four of mine went to Cass Tech. Yeah it was so much better and I was so relieved to get them out there. I was glad my kids weren’t teenagers or young people back then that would be out there and get shot. Because I’ve heard and seen lots of people that were injured and still are injured from the riots where they got shot, paralyzed, in wheel chairs, stuff like that. One of the ladies out here said that her father took pictures, I think it was her father took pictures, just got out there with his camera and started taking pictures of everything.

NL: Where there any tensions in the neighborhood between the black families and the Jewish families?

DP: Over in the northwest area?

NL: Yeah when you were moving in there?

DP: No.

NL: Everybody got along?

DP: Everybody got along.

NL: Kids played with each other in the neighborhood.

DP: Mhm. Doctors office on the corner and he lived in – his office was in the front, he lived in the back. His little kids – we were over there with, what’s his name, [US Senator] Carl Levin? Carl Levin in that area. What’s this congressmen now that’s – oh god the black guy that’s always in trouble um, [laughter] Cushingberry? That area was like doctors and lawyers and people like that. My kids went to school with Levin’s kids. There was also a—

NL: Professional, educated parents for the most part?

DP: Yeah, Lieberman his little daughter Amy, I remember her, because all of them would play with my kids.

NL: And you’re still in that house on Prairie you said?

DP: Mhmm.

NL: Can you talk about that neighborhood now and the changes that you have seen since you moved in?

DP: You know there are some changes in that neighborhood but not really bad changes. We have our share of B and E’s [breaking and entering], there’s drugs but the neighborhood in all is basically a pretty solid neighborhood because the houses are built solid and they’re not these houses they’re building now, so that’s a good sound neighborhood.  If they're going to, you know, bring back Detroit, these areas like the Boston-Edison, Chicago area where you have these good solid homes—

NL: The brick instead of the frame houses—

DP: Yeah, they’re brick instead of frame houses and that’s the way mine is, is a brick house. It’s a nice solid house, they don’t make houses like this anymore, they don’t make neighborhoods like these anymore, and so we know that because we see a lot of people that are coming in trying to buy up all of these houses and most of these houses in the neighborhood people have lost because of foreclosure. They really didn’t want to give up their house, they just couldn’t afford to keep it anymore. But these houses in that neighborhood is pretty solid houses, you find some companies coming in and will buy up maybe a whole slew of houses in that particular area, management company. We see people coming from out of state buying up houses and they’ll flip them: fix them up, turn them around, and sell them you know for a higher price, but yeah it’s a pretty good neighborhood.

NL: Is that good for the neighborhood you think that people are doing that?

DP: Flipping houses?

NL: Yeah.

DP: I just wish it wasn’t people from out of state. I wish it wasn’t these management companies that’s taking advantage of the fact that these houses are here.

NL: Gotcha, more individuals—

DP: More individuals and I think with families that we know, families that need housing I think those people should have a good shot at it. I know at one time they had a drive to try and get more of our public officials to come back into the city Detroit to live. And they were offering them these houses over in the Boston-Edison area to come back and they would get them pretty cheap you would have to put money in them. Like, you could get a house over there maybe eight, ten thousand dollars but you would end up putting seventy or eighty thousand dollars in the house to bring it back up to the way it was. They had some big beautiful houses over there, because we looked into that when my daughter was looking for a house and the people told her, she had people come in to look at the house how much it would cost her to bring up she said you would have to put at least seventy thousand in this house to bring it up to par. So I wish that more people were allowed to do that. Then you wouldn’t see so many people leaving the city of Detroit because I thought about it quite often. I've thought about going to Sterling Heights, Macomb here lately.

NL: Yeah?

DP: Yeah.

NL: What has kept you from making a move like that?

DP: All the ties to that house but I have to let them go, sometimes you have to let them go. I have so much stuff in that house that are old memories, and I have to start getting rid of it and it would be nice to move to that area because my girlfriend just moved out there and I have been looking that way. Out Eighteen and a half, Twenty-something mile road, Romeo area, and just get out of Detroit but I wouldn’t give up what I have in Detroit. I would keep my house in Detroit. I have two houses, but I would keep the house in Detroit and maybe just rent them out. I think Detroit – I have a feeling it’s going to turn around, but I don’t think that I’ll probably live long enough to see that happen. I hope that it happens soon, but I don’t think I’ll be around when it turns around. I ride around in the city of Detroit and I see that there is so much work that has to be done. There is a lot of work that has to be done. We need to start tearing down all these ones that was burnt down during ‘67.

NL: Start fresh.

DP: Start fresh, just level them to the ground. There are so many houses and you can count them in one neighborhood that’s all boarded up. Drug dealers are using them as what they call trap houses. Young kids are afraid to go down the street to school because they might get snatched pulled into these empty houses. People are getting killed for nothing, over nothing. People are afraid to leave their homes, especially older people. Older people are being encouraged to take classes to get their CPL [concealed pistol license].

NL: What’s the most important thing or the first thing the city can do to get this moving in the right direction so that these things aren’t happening anymore? 

DP: You know what I used to say all the time: there’s people making decisions and they’re bringing in all of these – what do you call these — this one guy they brought in from another city to try and turn the city around, his background —

NL: The city manager, emergency manager.

DP: Emergency manager they are bringing in these people that’s talking from an expert point of view for economics and —

NL: Urban Development. 

DP: Urban Development, see I thought about doing that because I got three degrees, masters degrees, and one of them is from Wayne State and when I started at Wayne State I started in a program called Urban Development. They phased it out and I asked them why and they said that, "Well, we find that there is no need for this program." Well you do need people from the city of Detroit who is knowledgeable about the city of Detroit and what they need to work in that area and I used to always say, "Why don’t you just go ask the people?” You want to know what we can put into this neighborhood to make this a better neighborhood? Ask the neighborhood! 

NL: That seems simple enough.

DP: That’s simple enough, just ask the people! “What do you want for your neighborhood, what can we do, what can we give you to make your neighborhood a better neighborhood?” And listen to the people, listen to them, because they’re the one that’s going to make it happen. So you go in and think you know what they need and you put it in there, if that’s not what they need they’re going to rebel against it, or either tear it down, or either not cooperate with what’s going on. They used to have in each neighborhood, neighborhood city halls which I thought was a good idea. But how much power does the neighborhood city halls have if you go to them with problems? Now in my neighborhood, it’s the Northwest Activities Center. And they have meetings there at Northwest Activities Center, but what good is that, I mean, are you taking this information that we’re giving you? We used to have them come to our churches, some of the city officials, and they would ask questions. Benny Napoleon, which I know too, Benny Napoleon, all them guys, sit up at the front with your questions everyone would get up, stand there, talk on the mic. “There’s a house next door to me and there’s drug activity and I have been calling and calling and calling and calling and nobody seems to come out.” “Okay write that down, is you writing that down? What is the address? We’re going to do something about it.” Nothing is done about it. Talk to the people, find out what it is they want, talk to the young people, they’re the ones that got to live here.

NL: Well hopefully more people will hear that message and start doing that soon. Is there anything else you’d like to share today?

DP: That’s it. Other than that I love the city of Detroit. I grew up in the Colman Young era, I worked with him and worked with his team. I think that Colman Young was the best mayor that we’ve ever had. Some people didn’t like him because of his mouth and the way he told people just the way it was, and that’s the way it was, Colman Young.

NL: Alright, thanks for sharing with us today, Donna.

DP: Okay [laughter].

**

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Citation

“Donna Palmer, August 11th, 2015,” Detroit 1967 Online Archive, accessed September 23, 2019, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/105.

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